Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (6.24 p.m.)-I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007. The bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to use and disclose information for the purpose of conducting an activity such as a plebiscite. The bill also addresses any state and territory law that seeks to prevent or punish any person or entity from taking part in such an activity and causes such laws to have no effect. In other words, the bill seeks to restore a right which Queensland legislation had removed.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address some remarks to this bill, having chaired the Senate’s Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration’s inquiry into this legislation. The legislation was referred to the committee by the Senate on 16 August. Submissions were called for and three days of public hearings were held, on 30 and 31 August and 3 September, in Noosa, Emerald and Cairns respectively, and the committee presented its final report on 7 September.
The catalyst for this bill was the extraordinary actions of the Labor government in Queensland. It is worth running through the chain of events that led to the necessity for this legislation. The local government sector in Queensland until April of this year had been undertaking a voluntary process to examine its structure, operations and boundaries. The Size, Shape and Sustainability, or SSS, initiative was a collaborative approach between Queensland local governments and the Queensland state government and it had bipartisan support in the Queensland state parliament. It was supported by legislation and had a clear and agreed time line for progress. In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the Local Government Association of Queensland noted that 27 review groups and 117 councils were fully engaged in this process.
But then, suddenly, without warning, the Beattie government decided to scrap that process and unilaterally dictate forced amalgamations. The SSS initiative was abandoned. What was the rationale for Peter Beattie in abandoning this process? On the Insiders program on 19 August he said:
We just threw our hands up and said, ‘Look, after two years if you can only get four, you’ve got to be kidding.’
That is, only four councils agreeing to amalgamate. It sounds fair enough at face value: after two years you can only get four councils to amalgamate. One thing he left out was that it was actually a five-year process that the Queensland state government had signed up to, that local governments had signed up to, and that the Queensland state opposition had signed up to. So it is hardly surprising when you are barely 18 months through a five-year process that you do not actually have the end result that the process was designed to achieve. In the same interview, when Peter Beattie was talking about what would happen if that process were allowed to go the full distance, he said:
And the end of that process would have been a referendum by the way.
So initially, he entertained the very prospect of a referendum. He saw referendums as a necessary part of giving voice to the people and the wishes of people in Queensland, but he abandoned that.
On 17 April the Queensland government established a seven-member Queensland Local Government Reform Commission, getting rid of the SSS process. Only one month was allowed for submissions from stakeholders as part of that process. The commission brought down its report on 27 July. Amongst its 25 recommendations was the most controversial one: that the number of Queensland councils be reduced from 156 to 72.
In moving to implement these changes the Beattie government expressly removed any right of appeal against the reform commission’s recommendations. It is worth noting what the Queensland legislation actually said in relation to reviews. It said:
A designated decision
is final and conclusive; and
cannot be challenged, appealed against, reviewed, quashed, set aside, or called into question in another way, under the Judicial Review Act 1991 or otherwise (whether by the Supreme Court, another court, a tribunal or another entity); and
is not subject to any writ or order of the Supreme Court, another court, a tribunal or another entity on any ground.
Without limiting subsection (1), a person may not bring a proceeding for an injunction or any other order to stop or otherwise restrain the performance of a designated act, or for a declaration about the validity of a designated act.
And so on it goes. You get the feeling that they did not want anyone to have any avenue of appeal against their decision.
This leads us to the Commonwealth’s action. Without any avenue at all for appeal or redress, the Commonwealth thought that it was only fair and reasonable to offer some assistance to the people of Queensland to have their say. Already there is, in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, provision for local governments to hold plebiscites. That is something that was already there. The Commonwealth said it would fund local governments to conduct those plebiscites. The act already exists for those plebiscites to happen; all we were offering was to fund them. No legislation was required.
In response, Premier Beattie amended his own legislation so that any council that took advantage of the Commonwealth’s offer would be sacked. Any councillor who was involved in seeking to have a referendum would be fined. One can only presume that if they were fined, and did not pay, they would then go to jail. The ALP was saying, ‘We are going to force these amalgamations on you; we are not going to let you have a say and, if you try, we are going to whack you.’ So, on 10 August 2007, the Beattie government passed the Local Government Reform Implementation Act 2007, which banned local councils from conducting these polls. That was the action which prompted the Prime Minister to announce the legislation we are discussing today. Premier Beattie then announced that Queensland would challenge this legislation in the High Court. But, eventually, the absurdity of Premier Beattie’s position was clear even to him and he announced that the Queensland parliament would repeal the offending provisions.
Although Mr Beattie admitted that he had stuffed up, his appearance on the ABC Insiders program on 19 August had his and the government’s arrogance on full display. Whilst he would no longer stand in the way of plebiscites being conducted, Mr Beattie was forced to admit that he did not care what the people had to say. This is what Mr Beattie had to say:
If people want to have a protest and the Prime Minister wants to pay for that protest vote, then that’s fine by us; we’re not going to fine councils. But one thing everyone needs to understand is that amalgamations will go ahead, there will be no changes.
In other words, ‘you can have your say, but we’re not going to listen. We don’t care what you think.’
Despite Mr Beattie apparently withdrawing his threat to punish those who want to have a say, who want to hold a plebiscite, we still seek to pass this legislation, for two reasons. Firstly, and bizarrely, rather than seeking to amend the primary legislation in the Queensland parliament, the Queensland government has opted to seek to override the primary legislation by regulation. It is a pretty bizarre thing to do, and of dubious legal efficacy. This is despite the fact that the Queensland government has already introduced into their parliament amending legislation, which is sitting there waiting to be debated. They just cannot bring themselves to pass legislation to actually withdraw those punitive provisions.
Secondly, and most importantly, we are going to pass our legislation to protect against any future rush of blood to the head of any Queensland premier. This legislation is insurance against the Queensland government not removing those offending provisions or seeking to reintroduce them in the future.
One of the most poignant moments in our public hearings took place in Emerald, where we had a witness, Mr Robert Hayward, Chief Executive Officer of the Tambo Shire Council. While Mr Hayward was giving his evidence he very casually mentioned that he had paid for the Tambo Shire to have a plebiscite out of his own pocket. This is what the Queensland government’s legislation led to: situations where you had a council chief executive paying the $4,000-it was a fairly small shire-out of his own pocket in order to protect his councillors so that they could not be sacked and so that they could not be fined. That is the absurdity of the situation, where you have council chief executive officers putting their own hands in their pockets to fund plebiscites.
That instance so took the committee that we have recommended in our report that the Queensland state government reimburse Mr Hayward for the expenses he incurred and that, failing that, the Commonwealth government should give consideration to reimbursing Mr Hayward. But I would hope that the Queensland government would have the decency to reimburse him.
The committee also heard how important small local councils are in Queensland communities. I have to say: if you had asked me a year ago, I would have said that if you have local government areas with only 1,200 people in central western Queensland, of course they should be merged. If you had asked me, I would have said that a year ago. But listening to the evidence of these people was inspiring. Some of these local council employees in these shires staff the local SES, the fire brigade and the ambulance services purely in a voluntary capacity. If you merge these councils, you lose these councils’ staff in these towns, you will lose their SES, fire brigade and ambulance services. Although the government does not have a position on council amalgamations, I have to say that personally I would hate to see a council such as Tambo forcibly merged. These services are critical and may well be put at risk if forced council amalgamations take place.
Many witnesses before the committee testified on the various unique aspects of their councils, whether it be differences in maintenance standards, approaches to urban planning or simply the preservation of local identity. It was clear to the committee that local councils across Queensland are each representing their individual communities in their own ways-which is as it should be. Each council reflects the different priorities of their communities, and what is clear is that these amalgamations, conducted as they have been without proper consultation, will damage the ability of individual communities to determine their own priorities.
The forced amalgamations have also had significant implications for Indigenous communities. The Chair of the Torres Strait Regional Authority and Chair of the St Paul’s Island Council, Mr Toshie Kris, highlighted in his evidence, in Cairns, the challenge of having responsibilities arising from being partly bound by an international border. He told the committee:
There was no proper consultation throughout our region. It really distresses me. We are talking about a region that looks after more services than any other shire in the region, because we also deal with an international treaty right throughout our region. I would love to see how the Mayor of Cook Shire or the Mayor of Douglas Shire would deal with 10 canoes sitting on the beach with people with diseases ranging from TB and dengue to HIV. These are real issues that are happening throughout our region. It has been stated that our region is the eyes and ears of Australia. With the amalgamation process, the only thing left is the bare skull. There is a passage through that skull to Australia that no-one has really given any answers to.
Mr Joseph Elu, Chair of the Seisia Island Council, added that the amalgamations threaten their cultural heritage. ‘We feel we will lose our identity,’ he said.
The disgraceful handling of this process by the Queensland Labor government leaves that government condemned. It is what led to Dr Michael Taylor, President of the Noosa Shire Residents and Ratepayers Association, to declare, ‘I’m a lifelong Labor voter and I will never vote Labor again.’ But the incompetence and arrogance of the Queensland state Labor government pales in comparison to the rank hypocrisy of the federal Labor Party. Labor say that they support this bill, and I guess Senator McLucas came the closest to seeming vaguely enthusiastic about this bill-but, given her office is in Cairns, she would be practically lynched if she did not evidence some enthusiasm. Labor senators will soon file in here with the government to vote for and pass this bill. But if Labor support this bill, why didn’t one single Labor MP front the inquiry? The Nationals member for Maranoa, Bruce Scott, fronted up and gave evidence. The Liberal candidate for Leichhardt, Charlie McKillop, fronted up and gave evidence.
If Labor support this bill, why didn’t their MPs appear before the inquiry and give evidence to that effect? Why have Labor senators submitted a dissenting a report which amounts to nothing more than a partisan rant? Why are Labor senators attacking the inquiry process and carping at the conduct of the hearings? And why are Labor senators saying that this bill is a stunt? Most of all, why hasn’t anyone in the Labor Party publicly and forcefully called on the Queensland Labor government to pull their head in? Even during the debate on this bill in the House this week, Labor members were running the line that the bill was really unnecessary. If it is so unnecessary, why are Labor recommending that the bill be passed? If it is so unnecessary, why don’t Labor have the courage to vote against it?
It is also noteworthy that not a single Labor member from Queensland had the mettle to speak in support of the bill in the House. They have left the task to their interstate colleagues to tackle an issue of fundamental importance to their constituents and their state. What weak and spineless representation the Labor Party provide for their constituents in Queensland. The truth is that Labor are again trying to walk both sides of the street. They are trying to be seen to be supportive of local communities in Queensland, for reasons of political self-interest, but at the same time they are scared of confronting their party colleagues in Queensland in a meaningful way-in a way that will get results. It is yet another exhibit in a growing catalogue of evidence that demonstrates how federal Labor would merely be a patsy for the state Labor governments. They are not willing to stand up to them, and you can bet your house that, if Labor had been in government federally, they never would have introduced legislation like this and they never would have stood up for the democratic rights of communities in Queensland.
Senators Forshaw and Moore drew to the attention of witnesses over and over again-as Senator McLucas did a moment ago-that Mr Rudd is on the record criticising the amalgamation process before Mr Howard was on the record. My response to that is: so what? Did Mr Rudd’s comments have any effect on the Queensland government? No. Did Mr Rudd introduce legislation into the parliament to override the Queensland legislation? No. What matters to the people of Queensland is not what people said but what they did and who took action. This government is taking action, initiated by us-not initiated by senators on the other side.
Maybe the Labor candidates and members in Queensland were taking their orders from a union boss. In this case, they may well have been following the directive of Bill Ludwig. The Australian helpfully exposed Mr Ludwig’s intervention on 16 August. That article said:
Mr Ludwig said yesterday he had told his Right faction federal candidates in Queensland to ‘pull their heads in’ and not to support Coalition attacks on Mr Beattie over the amalgamations. ‘I’ve sent the word out to the candidates. What the state Government has done is fair,’ he said.
These unions have a funny sense of fairness. On the one hand they say that our workplace relations policies that have delivered higher wages and hundreds of thousands of new jobs are unfair. Yet abandoning a functioning process, ramming through a flawed amalgamations process without consultation, and then threatening to sack and fine those who dare to ask their communities what they think is ‘fair’ according to people like Bill Ludwig. What a joke. When are we going to hear Labor senators opposite rebuke the likes of Bill Ludwig? I am tipping the answer is ‘never’. We will just hear silence.
No wonder the unions are happy with what is occurring. The Labor government in Queensland has stipulated that local transition committees be formed to guide shires through their amalgamation process. I guess that sounds fair enough, but those committees can contain up to three union officials. The committee heard evidence that, unlike the other members of these committees, these union officials are rarely locals. Unions win; local communities lose. On this side of the chamber, we are proud of this legislation. We are actually enthusiastic about this legislation. We are not dragging our heels in here to vote for it reluctantly. We are keen and eager to do it and cannot wait. We are pleased that, through our Senate inquiry, the people of Queensland were able to have a voice, and we look forward to seeing them expressing their views via plebiscites.
But not everyone was so enthusiastic about the Senate committee process. In a letter dripping with vitriol, addressed to the Special Minister of State, Queensland local government minister Andrew Fraser wrote:
… there is absolutely no public benefit in the course of inquiry being undertaken by the committee. It represents an abuse of the majority the Howard government holds in the Senate …
This inquiry is exposed for what it, in reality, always was: a sham, taxpayer-funded touring circus for Howard government mouthpieces to peddle unconstitutional false hope.
‘Howard government mouthpieces’ is a little offensive to the Labor senators on the committee, I would think. He goes on:
Port Douglas and Noosa are, granted, nice places to visit; especially when compared to Canberra’s wintry August. But the inquiry, like the bill itself, is just a cruel hoax.
I can assure Mr Fraser that this bill is not a cruel hoax. It is intended to give a voice and a say back to the people of Queensland. We are determined to pass this legislation. We think it is important legislation. Never before have many of us on this side of the chamber seen the democratic right of people to have their say stomped on the way we have seen it in Queensland. Local communities need this bill to ensure that they are never again denied their say.